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September 11, 2013 at 6:01 AM

From farm to loaf pan in Skagit Valley

Kneading Conference breads, 2012 photo by northwestsourdough.com

Kneading Conference breads, 2012 photo by northwestsourdough.com

The breadbasket of America is supposed to be the Midwest. However, the breadbasket of Washington, more and more, is looking like a small laboratory building in the Skagit Valley surrounded by fields of grain.

It’s the home of the year-old Bread Lab at the Washington State University Research Center in Mount Vernon, a research center and semi-think tank where scientists, farmers, millers, and bakers are working to make locally grown wheat viable once again, and provide an alternative to mass-blended commodity flours and loaves.

WSU researchers oversee more than 40,000 strains of wheat in the expanse of fields around the lab, and test flours with equipment that ranges from standard petri dishes to a four-deck, steam-injected stone hearth oven. Their tools test the elasticity and extensibility of different doughs, the protein content and enzyme activity of flour, and other qualities crucial to crumbs and crusts. It’s the same sort of research that’s typically conducted by major corporations — but in this case, it’s aimed at helping artisan bakers and even home cooks.

Skagit Valley’s climate is well-suited to growing wheat — a century ago, the valley was wall to wall grains, said Professor Stephen Jones, head of the lab and director of the research center. And the local flours have qualities bakers revere — early Lab fans like George DePasquale, co-founder of The Essential Baking Company, praised the flours as having flavor notes and qualities that he’d previously only associated with wines. (Leslie Mackie of Macrina is another familiar name on the advisory panel.)

“There are a bunch of reasons local flour is great,” said Mike Dash of Rolling Fire, a Seattle-based catering and oven installation company. He’ll be baking an all-Washington-grown pizza this week at The Kneading Conference, a sold-out gathering of hundreds of baking aficionados gathering in Mount Vernon to discuss bread-baking techniques and advances, with local flours as one of the prime topics.

The local flours are appealingly fresh, said Dash. They don’t need stabilizers, they’re not housed in industrial warehouses that might require chemical protection, they contribute to a sustainable economy — and the doughs they make have an eye-opening “liveliness” and flavor.

On the down side, when flours aren’t mass blended, they’re not always consistent from bag to bag or crop to crop. The flours Dash has worked with so far require more testing, experimentation and judgment calls than the sacks of imported Italian flour that he’s accustomed to using for his pizzas.

The local grains are “good for the farmer, good for the community, good for the world, tough on the baker,” as Scott Mangold, co-owner of the Breadfarm bakery in Edison, titled his Kneading Conference seminar.

Dash’s dream for Rolling Fire is to work with a dedicated farmer and miller to get his own supply of local pizza flour made to his specifications. Already, working with the Bread Lab, he’s developed a crust he’s fairly happy with — one with a great crumb to the dough, and a “nutty and richer and definitely more wheaty flavor,” though he’s still working on the “snap” of the crust.

Making local wheats available isn’t just a matter of making bakers comfortable with them. The mission requires rebuilding the entire chain of economy that once existed in communities — the farmer to grow the grains, the miller to grind them, the shops to sell them, the bakers to use them. Links in that chain have been cemented as well over the past few years, with participants as major as Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill in Bellingham, which supplies retail stores and co-ops, and as small as Sequim-based Nash’s Organic Produce, where the farmers grow their own wheat, run a small stone mill, and stock their Seattle farmers market tables with bags of hard red wheat for bread and soft white wheat for pastry alongside the kale and carrots. There’s even a new Skagit Valley Malting Company, also working with WSU, focusing on Skagit-grown barley and wheat.

In the Bread Lab’s first year, it’s been busy enough to support hiring a full-time baker. The researchers have worked with bakers as diverse as Iraqi flatbread bakers interested in using Western Washington wheat, and are testing flours for small mills in a handful of other states as well, Jones said. Wheat from Whatcom County was recently featured in a bread tasting at Blue Hill in New York, run by farm-to-table visionary chef Dan Barber, who has worked with the lab.

For bakers, said the Breadfarm’s Mangold, it’s the beginning of an exciting turn in the craft.

“Until recently, flavor wasn’t much of the discussion when it came to growing wheat in this country. Artisan bakers learn how to draw distinct flavors from the grains using fermentation and techniques. Now we are starting to discuss terroir in relation to grain growing,” he said.

“A fascinating new avenue of exploration and experimentation in breadmaking awaits us.”

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